Article of The Month


                        c. 1998 by Alicia Rasley

1. Tone-- What is the tone of your book? Look for sensory details that enhance your dark, light, epic, comic, or lyric tone.

A. Word and image choices create tone: if you choose gloomy, grim, dusky words, you'll create a dark tone. If you choose amusing, ridiculous, clever images, you'll create a light tone. The way to make this subtle rather than heavyhanded is to make sure most of the words are in common use (that is, "dark" rather than "tenebrous"), and the images are accessible to most people (a cave, not the interior of the small intestine).

B. Watch out for purple. A little lush, sensual language goes a long way. Try to save lyrical passages for when you need them most-- don't make the hero and heroine's every encounter be one of salivating passion, or the reader will start skimming. Let the language of the passages fit the emotion of scene and attitudes of the characters. And remember, sometimes the sparest language makes for the most wrenching experience.

C. Pacing matters too. A fast-paced book is going to have fewer descriptive passages. Insert what description you need into the action. Even in a fast book, though, I'd suggest slowing things down during love scenes-- take a bit more time to savor the sensations. compass


2. Setting-- where can this take place? If it can take place anywhere, what is the most vivid or interesting place it can be while contributing and not distracting to the events?

A. Environmental factors that can add texture to the scene? Think "air"-- wind, rain, mist, sun-heat, smog, air-conditioning, hearth fire, open-window breeze. Also what's it feel and sound like-- the brick street clicking under the horse's hooves, the chill creeping in through the chinks in the log cabin.

B. Character interaction with environment-- stumbling into pothole, avoiding the edge of the cliff, swatting at flies.

C. Character USE of environment-- digging a hole for the body, leaning wearily against the wall, slamming the door.

D. Environmental props, things available in this setting to be used to some real or symbolic purpose-- fallen leaves to stomp angrily on, several telephones to make simultaneous calls from, a crowd to push through, a knife and fork to wave around.

3. Character viewpoint-- spend some time thinking about how the viewpoint character experiences sensation. Individualize! This will help you get beyond the generic of what anyone in the scene could see.

A. For maximum effect, narrate the sensory experience from as deep in the viewpoint as you plausibly can, and don't switch until the experience is done. That is, give the reader the chance to experience this with or through one character. This means burrowing into the character's skin and psyche to determine his/her sensory perceptivity, mood, and attitude.

B. Move beyond the visual. Many people, especially women, are as audial (hearing) as they are visual. Others are tactile-- they need to touch and be touched to truly experience. And almost everyone is stimulated by the olfactory (smell)-- unfortunately, it's the hardest sense to describe with words.

C. Consider the viewpoint character's current situation too. A woman who has just been shot at probably won't notice her rescuer's cool blue eyes, but when he grabs her and throws her out of the way, she'll experience the swiftness of his motion and the power of his strong arms. Try not to slip into omniscient or you'll lose the intensity of focus.

D. Don't forget the character's mood. If she's nervous, she will jump at noises and peek warily around corners. In a more blithe mood, she might not even notice the dangers around her.

E. Remember that experience means feeling as well as touching. That is, don't just narrate the action-- 'he brushed his lips against hers.' Try some internal experience too, but don't get too overheated or clicheéd here. Sometimes sensations aren't easily described-- start out with simple language and get more lush if you need to. 'He brushed his lips against hers, and somehow she felt the tremble everywhere," gives a real sense of the power of that kiss.

4. Conflict-- Look for ways to manifest the internal and interpersonal conflict in sensory detail.

A. Can you set the scene somewhere that parallels the conflict? Think of the famous "market" scene in Casablanca, where Rick tries to negotiate Ilse back into his affections, while behind him a vendor keeps dropping the price of his wares. "For a special friend of Rick's, twenty francs!"

B. What are the characters doing that shows their conflict? If she's tying her shoes, does she yank too hard and break them? Does he snap "no more laughing" at his kids because the noise hurts his ears? Is he striding ahead, leaving her behind? Does her voice throb with withheld love?

C. When you're choreographing a love scene, remember the conflict doesn't disappear. If she's feeling guilty, that's going to change her responses to what he's doing. If he's seeking some redemption in her kisses, he's not going to be thinking down and dirty thoughts, but rather something more spiritual and longing.


5. Dialogue-- what characters say has more credibility than what the author says. A hero murmuring, "Mmmmm, sweet," against the heroine's lips is going to be a lot sexier than "he tasted the honeyed sweetness of her mouth."

A. When characters are feeling a lot, they don't necessarily speak well. Show the effect the sensation has on them by slowing down and breaking up the dialogue. No one talks in full paragraphs when they're aroused, unless they're trying to fight off the arousal.

B. Sometimes telling is better than showing, if the telling is in dialogue. Imagine a heroine saying, "You know, I had the most... intriguing dream about you last night," and then, with coaxing, revealing all the many splendors of that erotic dream. If our ears weren't erogenous zones, there would be no 900 numbers.

6. Love. Relationship. Connection. Our perceptions are both heightened and narrowed when we're involved with someone. Our feelings for the lover will affect how we experience that person and the world.

A. What's the attitude towards the other person? That changes the perception. If this man is a threat to you, you're not going to interpret his handsomeness benevolently. It's just going to be one more thing you hold against him. On the other hand, if you love him, you'll find that hairy mole on the end of his nose ever so endearing.

B. Can you show the perception changing as the lovers get closer? Maybe at first he concentrates on her beauty, but as he gets to know her it's her gestures or smiles that please him most? Or he thinks she's plain when he first meets her, but once he loves her she becomes beautiful to him?

C. Can you show something about the nature of the relationship in the sensory details and imagery? For example, a tempestuous relationship might have storm imagery and vivid, sharp details... but the most romantic moment might be a contrasting one, when he tenderly puts a blanket over her sleeping body.

D. Take your time! This is the payoff, what romance readers read for. When you're focusing on them and their connection, let them savor the sensation of being together. Slow down the pace long enough to show how their perceptions change just because they're together-- that will let the reader know how this love has changed their lives.

E. But don't overdo the physical. The physical is most important as a manifestation of their emotional bond. ALWAYS filter the purely physical perceptions through your understanding of what these characters are experiencing emotionally. To avoid generic description, go inside the character and narrate outward, through that person's viewpoint.This will teach us not just about the action, but also about what the viewpoint character feels about it.


Go to previous articles:

Plotting Without Fears

Structuring the Story

End Thoughts

Details, Details

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